Friday, 4 April 2014

A Queer Handle on Handel

When I was about 8 and my younger brother was about 7 we sang in our village Methodist chapel’s short production of Handel’s “Messiah”. My Dad was a life-long member of the choir and my Grandad used to be it’s secretary, so its likely they “persuaded” us.

Handel was never one of the composers I ever thought of as being gay, not until relatively recently. Preparing for this year’s music theme I was surprised at how many famous classical composers like Handel could be considered “queer” in their sexuality.

The case for Handel’s sexuality is persuasive, but I’m still undecided. Like a lot of historical characters George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) never mentioned or referred to any sexual desires in his lifetime. Most of the current theories revolve around what he didn’t say and more on where he went. Only “straight” people in history could flaunt their sexuality as any homosexual activity was illegal for centuries.

Questions about his sexuality were apparently raised during his own lifetime, or so a later story goes. It may be just apocryphal, but it is said that when Handel was living in England he was asked by King George II about his “love of women”. Handel replied that he didn’t have time for anything else but music.

As is often the case with other people, biographers were once a bit wary to delve into Handel’s sexuality, mainly because of the lack of any evidence or the biographer didn’t think it was important, or even refused to accept the possibility. Many of Handel’s biographers came up with their own reasons why the composer wasn’t gay. These range from asexuality (reasonable theory), which is the lack of any romantic or sexual interest in anyone of either sex, to pious and almost saintly status as appropriate to a composer of religious music. Those biographers who suggested the latter seemed to ignore Handel’s well-documented liking for drink, food and bawdy humour among the homo-social circles in which he often moved.

We can draw some parallels here with Richard Wagner. You could say that both Wagner and Handel have experienced posthumous attempts to homosexualise them. As I mentioned in a previous article, I don’t believe these attempts to have much validity in the case of Wagner, but with Handel it may be different.

Society’s attitude to homosexual behaviour is different in the three eras of Handel’s time, Wagner’s time, and our own, so we must be careful not to put too much of today’s meanings into historical behaviour. Just remember that in the past homosexual love and homosexual sex were not treated the same. Love was okay, sex wasn’t (except in marriage).

More recent biographers have not ignored the possibility that Handel may have loved men more than women. They give several reasons why they think so. Firstly, biographers point out that during most of his life Handel’s social life, by and large, was lived in many fashionable high-class musical circles where there were a lot of aristocratic patrons who could be described as closeted homosexuals. While Handel lived in Rome the city was often referred to as the “City of Sodom”. Though socialising with a wealthy patron, regardless of their sexuality, was a good idea for any artistic talent looking for an income.

Another piece of circumstantial evidence biographers mention is Handel’s music from this early period. It contains many short pieces called chamber cantatas. They weren’t written for large theatre audiences or orchestras but for more intimate surroundings often consisting of a group of men and “gay” patrons. Handel never published many of these cantatas. They followed the fashion of the period for “pastoral” music which often celebrated same-sex relationships. The title of a recent biography by musicologist Ellen T. Harris was called “Handel as Orpheus” and brings another comparison between himself and the Greek musical hero Orpheus who, after the death and loss of his wife Eurydice, turned his love exclusively to men.

When Handel settled in England he continued to associate with men who led “gay” lifestyles as is Rome. In the 1730s, however, there was a crackdown on the underground gay subculture in London, in particular the so-called “Molly Houses” where men could meet, socialise and have sex with other men. Handel rewrote some of his overtly sexual lyrics to prevent them from being used against him.

As with many people we’ll never know for sure about Handel’s sexuality. What can be said is that his early music was influenced by the continental subculture of same-sex circles, and they helped to shape a recognisable musical style that reached a pinnacle in works such as “Music for the Royal Fireworks” and “Messiah”.

No comments:

Post a Comment